A Piece of Dixon History: The battle to build Dixon’s castle high school

The 1901 North Dixon High School (left) and the 1868 North Dixon Grade School on the site of today’s Heritage Square at 620 N. Ottawa Ave.

On June 20, 1927, 97 years ago, the citizens of Dixon voted to build one new high school for all northsiders and southsiders. After that momentous election, Dixon built “the castle,” its majestic high school that has prominently stood along the banks of the Rock River for almost a century.

However, building the castle required years of battles and special elections.

Merging north and south sides

For decades, high schoolers who lived south of the river attended South Dixon High School, later known as South Central School, at the corner of South Hennepin Avenue and Fifth Street. Northside high school students attended North Dixon High School, built in 1900, where Heritage Square now stands.

The groundwork for the 1927 vote was laid in March 1919, when Dixon voted to consolidate the north side and south side school districts into one “district 170.” The Telegraph, which had long promoted consolidation, described the merger as “one of the most progressive moves made in Dixon in years.”

One board, one high school

So, in April 1919, voters elected one school board to govern all north side and south side schools. Four of the seven board members were from the south side, and three were from the north side. In spite of the initial strong support for this board, their tenure would be filled with angry voters and tumultuous times.

The Telegraph described the seven board members as “high-grade men.” The elected board president was attorney Henry S. Dixon (1870-1928), the great-grandson of Father John Dixon and a former mayor of Dixon.

With the merger of the two school districts, some thought that the new school board would immediately build a new high school. But voter approval was required to build a new building and to raise the necessary funds for construction.

Justifying a new school

From 1920 to 1926 the school board tried several times to convince the citizens of the need for a new community high school. They noted Dixon was the only Illinois city of its size that was operating two separate and distinct high school plants.

Overcrowding was the primary reason to build a new school. For example, in 1925 the South Dixon High School had more than 400 students, yet only 16 teachers and 12 available classrooms.

In addition, the modern idea that public education must include more than reading, writing and arithmetic called for better facilities. At the time, the two Dixon high schools lacked space for a library, a cafeteria, music and art instruction, home economics, manual training, and an adequate gymnasium for the growing demand for physical education and competitive sports.

The long battle to build

However, in spite of strong editorial support from the Telegraph, voters continued to reject a new school. The major sticking point was the school board’s proposal to create a new high school district that included rural areas.

Rural folks strongly opposed this proposal because it meant new taxes. At the time, rural students paid a tuition to attend high school in Dixon, but the small tuition could not begin to pay for a new building.

In June 1927, the school board held another referendum for a new school, but this time, the board dropped its proposal to bring rural areas into the school district. Consequently, the only voters were people who lived in the city, and these voters overwhelmingly approved the idea of building a new school.

Selecting the site

The same election also asked voters to choose between five sites for the new high school. The clear winner was “the Athletic Field,” garnering 55% of the vote. The second-place site got only 14% of the vote.

The athletic field, located where the football field is today along the Rock River, was a 7-acre field that had been used by the school district since 1921. Besides the obvious attraction of the riverfront, the athletic field site was centrally located, offered ample room for expansion and was close to the business district, which was – and is – rare for high schools.

From 1921 until the new school was built, high school athletes jogged from their respective schools down to this riverside field for practices, football games and track meets. One notable student who frequently used this field was Ronald Reagan (1924-1928).

Three elections for final funding

So, with the June 1927 election, voters approved a new school and its specific location, but the school board didn’t have funding. In a subsequent July 1927 election, citizens rejected a measure for a bond issue to pay for the school. Voters in North Dixon, where the school would be built, strongly supported the bond issue, but south side voters, where more people lived, strongly opposed it.

Finally, in October of 1927, voters approved the school board’s proposal to issue $273,000 in bonds. Problem solved, right?

Wrong. By the spring of 1928 the school board realized that their new high school needed another $180,000 to complete the project, which required another vote. Finally, in May 1928, 77% of voters approved an additional bond issue of $180,000.

Water worries

One key focus of the construction was a concern for flood damage from the river. To diminish the potential problem, 24,000 cubic yards of fill was taken from the river, which included the removal of four small islands between Peoria and Madison avenues. This fill was then used to raise the foundation of the building “to a sufficient height to insure no trouble from high water.”

As an additional precaution, the school was erected about 60 feet north of Water Street, away from the river. (Water Street became Lincoln Statue Drive in 1932 after the Lincoln Statue was erected in 1930.)

As the Telegraph reported, “The lowest level (of the school) will be several feet higher than the waters of Rock River have ever risen at any flood of which there is a record.”

A few years later, however, record flooding surrounded the building, causing the school to close for one day in 1937 and another day in 1938. The raging high waters of 1938 broke the dam and forced the monthslong closure and ultimate replacement of the Galena Avenue bridge in 1939. Yet, through the few peak days of this flooding, the school sustained no damage, only some “seepage in three departments” where pumps kept the water at bay.

Marveling at its beauty

When the new school was dedicated in December 1929, the guest speaker, State Superintendent of Schools Francis Blair, said, “This beautiful educational structure [is] erected upon the banks of Rock River where all passing through your city may see your high school and marvel at its beauty.”

But he aptly added: “I congratulate this board of education whose only compensation for the erection of this institution has been nagging and criticism.”

In part two, which will be published on June 28, we’ll reveal unique aspects of the building design, the ongoing battle against overcrowding, and the school’s 1929 leaders who would later be memorialized in DHS history.

  • Dixon native Tom Wadsworth is a writer, speaker and occasional historian. He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament.
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